Why You Feel Guilty About Being Unproductive (And How to Fix it)

Cherrie Kwok
Dec 3 · 12 min read

Wake up at 6AM. Make a To-Do list every morning. Write in my gratitude journal every night. Meal prep twice a week. Go to the gym three times a week. Write a self development article twice a month. Read one book a month. Write one song every two months.

These are the things that I plan to do outside of my 9 to 5 job. On some days, I won’t have the energy to do anything productive after work. And on some weekends, I just want to be a couch potato and Netflix in my pajamas all day. And that’s when I feel “ Productivity Guilt” — the bad feeling I get for not doing something all the time. Does this sound familiar to you?

I value work-life balance and enjoy watching my favorite TV show or taking a bubble bath (or watching my TV show IN my bubble bath). But it takes a lot to quiet the little voice that says “ Cherrie, you should be productive all the time if you want to get anywhere in life. Stop doing nothing and wasting your time!” Let’s name this voice Miss Productivity Guilt.

Miss Productivity Guilt is great at pushing me to achieve my goals and saving me when I’m knee-deep in the procrastination rabbit hole. But she has no boundaries and does not know when to stop! She constantly nags me and tells me that I should be doing more, that I should be maximizing every minute of my day. She makes me feel guilty and useless when she sees me doing a Friends marathon or watching cute dog videos aimlessly on Reddit. So in order to silence her, I appease her and cram my days with an endless list of tasks, with barely any room for rest and relaxation.

It is important to talk about Productivity Guilt for three reasons.

First, it has a detrimental effect on our mental health. When you feel like you have so much to do, and not enough time to do it all, you feel anxious, impatient and irritated. And yet, because we tell ourselves that we should be productive (internalized obligation), we stretch ourselves thin and try to do everything. Without thoughtful reflection and planning, we run the risk of being anxious people who experience burnout.

Second, Productivity Guilt makes your perspective overly future-oriented. So, instead of enjoying the present moment, you cruise through life one goal after another without taking the time to appreciate your successes and accomplishments. Life is made of moments, not To-Do lists.

Finally, the cost of always trying to “get stuff zone” and finding the most efficient way to do everything is this — you are choking your creativity to death. Unlike tasks, creativity does not follow a linear path that leads to a destination. The Zeigarnik Effect states that when you have an unfinished task, your cognitive resources and attention are devoted to it until it is complete. So when you have an endless mentality of “What’s next on my to-do list?”, where do you have room for any creativity?

But here’s the good news — you’re not crazy. There’s a reason for your Productivity Guilt.

Productivity Guilt stems from a variety of external and internal factors.

Let me first explain the external factors.

The cultural desirability of productivity is evident through the sheer volume of articles, books and podcasts about how to be more productive. Just look at the world of self-help — it’s filled with articles about how to do more with less time. The amount of time our ancestors had is the same amount of time we have — obviously, that hasn’t changed. But what’s changed, is the number of things that require our attention. The modern world is more complex than ever due to the ability for technology to open doors to endless possibilities (oh, unlimited dog videos!). As a result, we feel like we have more and more things to do!

Social media is a slippery slope because it facilitates our tendency to engage in social comparison. When you see your friends travelling the world, establishing a startup, running a marathon, winning an international award, raising two children, graduating from college, or building a strong physique — it’s easy to feel like you aren’t doing “enough”! Your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and FOFB (Fear of Falling Behind) are directly contributing to your Productivity Guilt.

When we fall into the trap of competing in the Rat Race of Life, we tell ourselves that we need to Do More, Be More and Get More, without truly knowing what’s realistic and sufficient for our own goals and needs. There is no winning in this rat race because there is always going to be someone that’s “better” than you in some way. And really, do you want to be a “rat” that lives according to measures of happiness and success prescribed by society without ever being in the driver seat of your own life?

Another cultural message that feeds into your Productivity Guilt is the glorification of “being busy”. Listen, just because you are busy, does not mean that you’re productive. Being busy means you have a lot of things to do — things that are not necessarily important or urgent in the moment. Being productive means you’re tackling important and urgent tasks based on how much of a priority they are (more on this below).

In our modern work culture, you hear folks b ragging about how busy they are and how late they stay in the office. To be honest, when I was a student, I used to talk about how busy I am too, it made me feel likea “busy professional” who did a lot of “important” work.These days, I’m much more intrigued when someone tells me about their work-life balance, self-care routine, and times spent with family. I’m impressed by someone’s ability to reflect, to identify what matters most to them, and to create a system that allows them to achieve happiness in a balanced way.

External factors only paint half the picture. Internal factors, including mental models developed through the internalization of cultural messages of what we “should” be, also contribute to your Productivity Guilt.

As I mentioned, there is a cultural imperative associated with being productive and busy. From a young age, we were taught to work hard in school and finish our homework on time. We were praised every time we accomplished a task or achieved something. The vice of laziness is even one of the Seven Deadly Sins — the Sin of Sloth!

Thus, due to the human pursuit of pleasure (positive reinforcement through praise), the natural avoidance of pain (removal of vice from our self-concept), and the constant reinforcement of cultural messages, we associate self-worth to our productivity. This deeply ingrained and largely unconscious internalization is the most powerful root cause for Productivity Guilt.

To explore this further, you have to understand that guilt is a feeling of deserving blame for something. It is a sign that our behavior is incongruent with our values. Guilt is not inherently a negative emotion. In fact, it is an informative emotion that moves us to action and gets us to do “the right thing”.

For example, we feel guilty when we eat too much sugar because we know that it’s unhealthy (and we value our health). In order to relieve ourselves of the guilt and to reduce the feeling of cognitive dissonance (discomfort that arises from incongruence between behavior and belief), we eat less sugar (you change your behaviour so that it is in line with your belief).

The elimination of cognitive dissonance (discomfort) can be used as a behavioural modification technique called Negative Reinforcement (NR). NR motivates a behavior by removing a negative outcome (e.g. your child voluntarily starts doing her homework so you won’t nag her about it).

In the case of Productivity Guilt — let’s say you value hard work ( belief) but you have not been doing anything productive for the last three days ( behavior). You experience cognitive dissonance ( discomfort). To reduce this mental discomfort (the guilt), you push yourself to do more and be more productive (behavior aligns with belief). In other words, negative reinforcement motivates you to be more productive (behaviour) because it reduces the feeling of guilt (negative outcome).

Another internal factor that contributes to Productivity Guilt is your refusal to be vulnerable and imperfect. As a former perfectionist, no amount of achievement or accomplishment was enough to satisfy my hunger to do more. I experienced the “ nothing is enough” syndrome, where my obsession with constant improvement and productivity led to constant dissatisfaction.

I refused to be vulnerable and strongly believed that rest and relaxation is for the weak and the lazy — folks who can’t or don’t want to put in the 12-hour work day. I was also infatuated with the rush of serotonin I get when I accomplish a task. As a result, before I even took the time to appreciate my successes, I had already moved on to the next goal.

I came to learn that being a perfectionist stems from a lack of self-compassion. I learned to be kind to myself, and to give myself permission to take breaks and relax for as long as I want (within reason). What really helped was finding a downtime activity where I could experience flow (see Csikszentmihalyi) and be in touch with my creative energy.

I’ve always been musical, but a year ago, I discovered my passion for producing music. Since then, I’ve written, recorded and produced 12 songs. Doing something that I could get lost in really helped shift my mind’s attention away from my to-do list. So try to find something that will allow you to “turn off” your productivity-oriented anxieties, so that you can calm your mind when you need to.

Here’s How You Can Overcome Your Productivity Guilt.

In an ideal world, there would be a single-step success formula that everyone can use to overcome their Productivity Guilt. But, as with most things, what works for one person may not work for another. The best way to find your personal solution is to learn about the tools you have at your disposal, and experiment through trial-and-error to find the winning formula.

So let’s strive for progress, not perfection. Your Productivity Guilt may never go away completely, but you can learn to work with it.

Here are two behavioral and cognitive strategies to help you manage your Productivity Guilt.

Behavioral Strategy: Time Management

You’ve heard this one before: when you think you have too many things to do and too little time to do it, you can beat that by working on your time management skills. But how can we most effectively manage our time?

The first technique is called the Eisenhower Matrix.

The key is prioritizing your tasks based on their urgency and importance.

1. Sort each item on your To-Do list into one of the four categories below.

2. Re-order your To-Do list by putting “Urgent AND Important” (top-left corner) tasks at the very top.

3. Focus on your Urgent AND Important tasks. Don’t sweat over the other ones.

The hardest part of this exercise is recognizing that not every task is created equal and identifying what is really important and urgent. Reflect and know what matters to you so that you can focus on the essential that matter for your most important. Once you see the value of each task, engage in a cost-benefit analysis of the input (time) and output (reward), and focus on what matters, you’ll stop feeling guilty about everything else.

The second technique is called Chunking.

There is a plethora of articles on Google about how Chunking can increase your efficiency by dividing your time into small, non-negotiable, uninterrupted “chunks” of time devoted to completing specific tasks. But, as mentioned, life isn’t about being efficient all the time! Chunking can help you reduce Productivity Guilt by building in the same (uninterrupted, dedicated, non-negotiable) “chunks” of time, but for rest and relaxation instead of work.

Instead of filling up your calendar with one task after another, b e intentional and block off time to recharge. This reduces Productivity Guilt because you have given yourself permission to indulge in guilt-free productivity during those “relaxation” chunks, and you know that there is a plan to be productive again at a later time. The Chunking technique provides more work-life balance by making the boundary between work and rest more visible. Coincidentally, when you’re in the “productive” chunk and feel like procrastinating or giving up, you can motivate yourself by looking forward to the “relaxation” chunks at the end of the day or on the weekend.

Cognitive Strategy: Cognitive Reappraisal

We are not passive players in life! We have a very powerful mind that allows us to interpret and respond to our external environment in an adaptive way. Although our unconscious is still largely out of our control, you can re-frame your interpretation of stressful events to change your emotional responses. According to Gross and John (2003);

Cognitive reappraisal is a psychological strategy that is useful when the stressful situation at hand cannot be changed. It involves lessening the emotional impact of a stressful situation by reframing or reappraising the initial perception of it.

The next time you experience Productivity Guilt, engage in cognitive reappraisal by transforming your guilt into self-compassion using these three principles. Once you adopt this mindset, you will stop feeling as guilty, and you will stop beating yourself up for not being productive all the time.

1. Accept rest & relaxation as an integral and necessary part of life

Go against the dominant belief that resting and relaxing when you have things to do is a bad thing. Just as a car needs fuel in order to run, you need rest in order to work. Recognize the difference between necessary rest (which you can regulate using the Chunking technique above) and procrastination (unregulated rest with no end in mind). Next time, when you feel like you’re wasting time (feeling the Productivity Guilt), ask yourself why you think time is being wasted. If the activity makes you feel happy, restored and rejuvenated (even though there is no tangible outcome), is it truly wasted? So, instead of thinking about rest as time wasted, re-frame it as a necessity for those who want to optimize their performance when the time comes to be productive.

2. Choose the Journey Over the Destination

Finishing one To-Do list after another is like pointing a ladder against the sky and trying to climb it — there is no end to the madness! If you’re so caught up on being productive all the time, let me tell you this now: there will always be more to do. If your satisfaction comes from finishing tasks as efficiently as you can, you will never feel content if you appreciate the process and pausing to celebrate your efforts and successes. So when you experience Productivity Guilt, remember that productivity isn’t about finishing things in the most efficient manner, but learning throughout the process and gaining a sense of confidence through overcoming obstacles.

3. Accept That You Can’t Have It All

We want to be as productive as possible so that we can have it all (like what we think everyone else on social media has). Author Tal Ben-Shahar talks about the notion of “ The Good Enough Life”. He urges us to accept the reality that we cannot have it all due to the constraints of life. While it pays to be ambitious, we also need to accept the imperfection inherent in our lives as human beings on this earth.

We need to identify areas of our lives that are important for us and find the optimal time and effort for them. For everything else, we should look for good-enough solutions. Recognize trade-offs and optimize your situation based on your goals and needs. The cost to being a productivity wizard is that your health and creativity will inevitably suffer. So use the Eisenhower Matrix and be productive only where it counts.

So, there you have it.

Now that you’re able to take back control of your life and to put Productivity Guilt back in its place, my job here is done!

I’ll go lay down on my leather couch, snuggle up against my heated blanket and watch Survivor for the next couple of hours — all without a hint of guilt.

Works Cited

Gross, J. J. & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348–362.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2010). Being Happy: You don’t have to be perfect to lead a richer, happier life. Toronto, Ontario: McGraw-Hill Education

https://www.amazon.ca/Being-Happy-Perfect-Richer-Happier/dp/0071746617

Zeigarnik Effect: https://www.psychologistworld.com/memory/zeigarnik-effect-interruptions-memory

Eisenhower Matrix: https://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/

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